We are all just the sum of our stories, right? And while one person might see my stories as boring and insignificant, another might just find them relatable and moving. Certain childhood events stand out on the virtual timeline more than others.
The flood of 1981 in Riga, Michigan is one of those events in my life. The River Raisin crested in nearby Blissfield at a record 687.10 ft. (Flood stage is 683 ft.) It is actually a much cooler story from my mom’s point of view. After all, I was only five years old when all this happened. I just did as I was told, and followed my mom’s lead. [Only recently have I realized that she must have spent my entire youth faking strength. She should have been an actress.]
As my mom tells it, she was asleep on the couch in the living room. Our dog Ginger was fussing around in the middle of the night. My mom woke up and swore at the dog. She wasn’t in the mood to get up and let her out. Then my mom sniffed. The dog didn’t want to go out. She was reacting to the weird smell in the air. My mom got up and checked the basement. The weird smell was water flowing into the furnace. The rain combined with the spring thaw of snow was causing water to pour through cracks in the basement walls.
It is probably useful to mention at this point in my story, for those unaware of local history, that before Riga was settled in 1843, it was all swamp. The swamp was drained by digging deep ditches. Deep ditches remain there still, alongside country roads lined with open, flat fields. Too bad that the night the flood first hit, all those ditches were already filled with water. So was the River Raisin.
My mom did what was most logical to her at the time, and waded down into the basement in her nightgown to turn off the furnace. After all, that is an expensive piece of HVAC equipment to have to replace. A little later, as the water only continued to rise, she waded down again to turn off the electricity to the house. Only in retrospect would she realize how easily she could have been electrocuted, leaving a clueless, sleeping child to later find her floating, bloated body.
She called her mother, who lived in nearby Adrian, to come and get us. By this time, water surrounded our house and our car. This must have been when my mom woke me up, told me what was going on, and told me Gramma would be here shortly. I wondered how, in the time since I had gone to bed, our front yard had become a lake.At this point our house had no heat and no electricity. With no power, we had no well, meaning no drinking water, either. My mom opened the door so that I could look into the basement. By this time, the water had made it up to the top basement step. The basement had filled up with water to ground level. Where there used to be an entire flight of stairs, now there was just muddy, brown water.
Things that are silly to remember about the flood, but they are what I remember because I was a kid:
1. As a kid, I didn’t have pajamas. I usually slept in just a T-shirt (and underpants, you sickos). Many of these were shirts my gramma had brought back from vacations as souvenirs for me. Maybe that was my mom’s way of treating them as second-class clothing. We called them my “sleep shirts.” They were kept separate from my other T-shirts, due to the fact that my mom said sleeping in them stretched the necks out. I never wore them during the day to leave the house. Ever.
Except for the first day of the flood. My mom just put my jeans, socks, shoes, and coat on me, and left on my sleep shirt. That is how I knew something very major and upsetting was happening.
When my gramma arrived, she stayed in the car at the road. It was still dark outside. My mom wore her winter boots as she carried our clothes and things out to the car through our front yard that was now a lake. Too bad that the water was higher than the tops of her boots. Next, she carried me out to the car. I was at the age where I still wanted her to pick me up, and she would always be like, “No, you are too heavy.” So, it could not have been easy for her. Finally, I sat in the car and watched as she carried the dog out. Ginger was some type of poodle mix. Guessing, she had to have been at least 45lbs. When my mom tells the story, she says how the whole way she was talking to Ginger, willing her to not twist and writhe and jump out of my mom’s arms and land kersplat into the water. But Ginger did not. She made it to the car.
We ended up sleeping at my gramma’s house for the next ten days: my mom on the couch, I on the loveseat. In my memory I was in kindergarten at the time, but there is no way I could have been at that age. Just one of the ways our memories play tricks on us.
My mom spent her days heading down to the house, while I stayed out of her way at my gramma’s. Instead, I was in my gramma’s way, cramping her style. My mom would come home at night with stories about how the main bridge through town was blocked by the cops because the flood waters were hitting the underside of the roadway, and how she begged them to let her through to work on her house. She had tales of the neighbors helping with sump pumps. She had to wait for the water to recede, then the furnace guy to come, then the electrician.
2. It was not lost on me, even then, that everyone had lived at my gramma’s house before, except me. I had seen the old 8mm home movies many times to prove it. My mom had grown up here. Ginger had lived her puppy years here. Even my dad who died before I was born lived there for a time when they were newlyweds. I was the odd man (girl?) out.
3. It was the first time I would ever get one of those big PAAS Easter poster kits that came with markers to color. My mom bought me a steady stream of new activities to try to keep me out of my gramma’s hair. I got a puzzle featuring a little girl in a blue bonnet and a baby chick. I got a new huge activity book, which I still had not completed years later. But I always remember the PAAS posters the best.
4. I remember being sick and watching Fridays starring Michael Richards and Melanie Chartoff with my mom on TV as I hacked away. Fridays was like SNL, but better and didn’t last nearly as long. I am positive it was the only time that particular program was ever watched on that television.
My mom always reminds me how my gramma came out of her bedroom and said, “Don’t you know you are keeping Gramma up?” And she wasn’t talking about the TV. She was referring to my loud coughing, which couldn’t be helped.
The River Raisin has risen many times since then, but never as high. My mom sold the house in Riga when I was 8 years old. I married into a family whose ancestral home sits on the flood plain of the very same river. Sometimes my in-laws have to be evacuated, and my husband and I are happy to be able to provide them refuge.
Other parts of the country worry about earthquakes or lava or hurricanes. Those of us who reside on a former swamp worry about flooding.
And a little about tornadoes.
And there is more…
I wanted to post this entry in the spring, maybe on the anniversary of this big flood or at least during flooding season. But I was busy working on my new book, and it didn’t happen. But, well, I am not too late after all…
This is my mother-in-law’s shed behind her house yesterday, as it floats away. This yard was dry enough to mow at 1:00PM on Sunday. 24 hours later, this is what the family saw as they evacuated.
And here is video someone in Blissfield must have taken with a drone:
Looks impressive, huh? And will certainly cause lots of costly damage. But just imagine, it is still 1.2 ft lower than in 1981. I think the crest of 6/29/15 will be the second highest historical crest for the River Raisin at Blissfield since 2/20/1981.
Follow the romantic entanglements of The Riley Sisters in my books When You Least Expect It & The Wind Could Blow a Bug AVAILABLE NOW! (The Wind Could Blow a Bug is ON SALE for only $.99 for a limited time.)